The Biggest Challenges and Opportunities for Credit Unions from a Marketing Perspective

Credit union marketers have some struggles that are unique to them, like the need to make more people aware of what the heck a "credit union" is. But their counterparts at banks would certainly be able to identify with many of their perspectives, including the concern, and cautious optimism, about the potential impact of generative artificial intelligence. Here's what five marketing executives see as the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead.

Credit union marketers share many of the same challenges that their community bank counterparts have, like having to compete against the digital offerings and big advertising budgets of the megabanks with far fewer resources than they have.

But they also believe the personal connections they forge with members give them an advantage they can build on. By helping members make smart financial choices, especially at a time of economic stress, the marketers hope to fill a need while also deepening relationships.

“All the research shows people are stressed over finances,” says Joel Swanson, vice president of marketing at the $4.5 billion-asset Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn., who suggests a strategy of leaning into financial education. “They need someone to help them navigate things.”

The marketers have to contend with some disadvantages too, including the fact that many people don’t even know what a “credit union” is. One way SF Fire Credit Union aims to overcome that is by working with influencers, an effort that already resulted in one post going viral with 1.8 million views.

“Younger generations are leveraging social media like TikTok and YouTube as a source for financial education,” says Josephine Chew, the chief marketing officer at the $1.8 billion-asset credit union in San Francisco. “Since this is where people are consuming media, the challenge for marketers and communicators will be how to best reach our prospective audiences through these channels.”

The Financial Brand spoke to five marketers at credit unions across the country — from Massachusetts to California — to get their views on the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead. Here are the insights they shared.

Challenge: Member Expectations
Opportunity: Personalized Service and Advice

headshot photo of brandye maldonado at Rally Credit Union

Brandye Maldonado

Brand Manager
Rally Credit Union
Corpus Christi, Texas
Asset Size: $4.1 billion

Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge credit unions face from a marketing perspective is being able to keep up with members’ expectations, and the need to constantly evolve to remain relevant. As for the why, I believe the expectations for our members have changed because their everyday transactions and interactions have changed.

Instant gratification has become the norm with merchants like Amazon and with nontraditional entities like Apple joining the financial services space. They have the ability to quickly use their unlimited resources to capture their current users.

Biggest opportunity: The biggest opportunity for credit unions is by being your members’ and prospective members’ trusted financial partner. Our members want to know they have an advocate in their corner walking them through life’s biggest moments. This is where credit unions can really shine. We are able to provide that personal and personable service tailored to each individual.

With credit unions it’s not a computer that is telling a person they get to go buy their dream car, it’s a credit union employee picking up the phone or sitting across from them and having the honor to say, “You took all the steps you needed to rebuild your credit and we are going to approve that loan for you today.” We have the opportunity to educate and create wins for our members every day. We should be looking at how we can help them with all their big financial life choices, from the birth of their first child to retirement.

See: Rally Credit Union’s Rebranding Campaign Plays on Its New Name

Challenge: Overcoming Misconceptions
Opportunity: Financial Education

Joel Swanson

Vice President of Marketing
Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union
St. Paul, Minnesota
Asset Size: $4.5 billion

Biggest challenge: There is still a lack of understanding of the differences between credit unions and banks. The fact that we are not for profit and member owned is not well known.

Many of our members — 20-25% — still do business with big banks because they assume we can’t do everything they need. There is still a lot of education in the category that needs to happen. There are still misconceptions of what credit unions can and cannot do.

No doubt the big banks can outspend us when it comes to marketing — which means we just need to out-hustle and out-think them.

Biggest opportunity: Our biggest opportunity is to lean further into what credit unions do best: member service. We have an opportunity to build much more meaningful relationships with our members.

All the research shows people are stressed over finances. They don’t like to talk about it. They need someone to help them navigate things. Credit unions need to lean into financial education and literacy. We need to continue to serve the underserved, those who have been left behind.

There was a man going through a divorce who came into one of our Affinity Plus branches recently. One of our member advisors sat with him for four hours to help him think through his future finances, going well beyond Affinity’s product and service offering.

How do you represent that experience in your marketing? That extra effort, that excitement to serve? The meaningful purpose of truly helping people? That’s the opportunity.

Read more:

Challenge: Brand Awareness
Opportunity: Use of Artificial Intelligence

Josephine Chew

Chief marketing officer
SF Fire Credit Union
San Francisco, Calif.
Asset Size: $1.8 billion

Biggest challenge: First and foremost, credit unions have an awareness problem. We saw that here in the Bay Area during market research we conducted last year: Only 1 in 3 people were familiar with credit unions, with only 1 in 5 having heard of SF Fire Credit Union. So, a huge priority for us right now is brand awareness — which also means general education on credit unions and their benefits.

To do this, one area we are exploring is financial influencers. Younger generations are leveraging social media like TikTok and YouTube as a source for financial education. While I have some concerns around the accuracy and dependability of online sources, I do think influencers are doing a great job at making financial content more relatable and interesting. Since this is where people are consuming media, the challenge for marketers and communicators will be how to best reach our prospective audiences through these channels.

I have worked with many influencers in the past as part of my financial marketing work, and am currently testing influencer relations at SF Fire Credit Union as well. And we’re already seeing results: one of our local influencers for the “Side Bank” campaign went viral with 1.8 million views and very positive feedback.

Biggest opportunity: I am very intrigued by artificial intelligence, and what opportunity it holds for credit unions. I know it is not without its concerns, particularly around copyright for both written and creative. I also predict that with the rise of AI, we will start seeing a generalization of social, web content and even marketing strategies as more marketers use the same AI tools to create content.

“Marketers have to publish so much content for so many platforms, while optimizing for various topics and audiences, that I can see AI playing a big role in how we smartly and efficiently engage audiences.”

However, I believe AI also provides an exciting opportunity to create content quickly and efficiently, if you use it appropriately. Marketers have to publish so much content for so many platforms, while optimizing for various topics and audiences, that I can see AI playing a big role in how we smartly and efficiently engage audiences. At SF Fire Credit Union, we have been using AI for a few months now, and it has been interesting to see the areas it helps streamline. We are also adhering to current guidelines and best practices as the industry evolves and making sure that all content is reviewed and finessed by a real, human marketer.

See: Why Marketers Absolutely Must Experiment With AI Tools Now

Challenge: Apathy About Banking
Opportunity: Focusing on Strengths to Increase Positive Impact

Stacy Armijo

Chief experience officer
Amplify Credit Union
Austin, Texas
Asset Size: $2 billion

Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge credit unions face from a communications and marketing perspective is apathy. It’s tempting to believe that our members think about our institutions often and want to deepen their relationships with us, but the reality is banking is a commodity.

No one wants to think about their checking account, and if they do, it’s probably not for a good reason (maybe they were charged an unexpected fee or the app was down when they wanted to check their balance). Likewise, they only think about loans when they’re getting the loan, then most folks set up an autopay and rarely think about it again.

So, as marketers and communicators for credit unions, how do we earn attention to stay engaged with our customers so they continue (and hopefully expand) their relationship with us? I think the answer is talking about something more than money.

“How do we earn attention to stay engaged with our customers? … I think the answer is talking about something more than money.”

For example, at Amplify, we make a lot of mortgages, but we aren’t just talking about rates and terms, we’re convening conversations around affordability, since that’s one of the most complex challenges of our primary market in Austin, Texas. Likewise, with deposits, we’re not talking about “free checking,” we’re talking about the disproportionate impact of fees on younger consumers and communities of color, and pioneering an approach no one in the industry has yet matched more than a year later.

In short, credit union marketers shouldn’t take their members for granted, believing they’re looking for our emails or following our social media accounts. We have to earn their attention and loyalty each and every day, or risk losing it to the growing list of those who can, including trendy neobanks and beloved retailers.

Biggest opportunity: I believe there has never been a better time to be a credit union. Today’s consumer demands that their purchasing decisions meet table stakes – including a competitive price/return and quality technology – but all those things being equal, they also want to know they’re making a positive impact through the institutions they support. That’s what credit unions are born to do.

If we have the fortitude to choose narrow product sets that enable us to make them as competitive as possible and support them through high-quality digital experiences, we can earn market share and drive more positive impact. As an industry, I believe that means we have to get better at saying no: no to product lines we might like, but others deliver better, no to good ideas that would stretch our limited staff resources too far, and no to the few, but loud, voices invested in service delivery mechanisms no longer suited to the current environment.

As an industry, I’d like us to say “no” more often, so our “yes!” becomes a lot more powerful.

Read more:

Challenge and Opportunity: Personalized Communications

Sue Burton

Senior vice president of digital and marketing
Digital Federal Credit Union
Marlborough, Mass.
Asset Size: $11.3 billion

Biggest challenge: DCU may be unlike many credit unions, given our size and open field of membership, but I’d likely say the challenge is in rapidly building a modern data-driven digital communications platform that enables personalized one-on-one communications and closed loop feedback. Credit unions are more often resource-constrained relative to the advanced consumer brands (like Amazon or Spotify) which are setting member expectations for personalized experiences and recommendations.

Biggest opportunity: The biggest opportunity for credit unions is relationship marketing and communication. Credit unions have a deeper level of member connection and brand affinity and trust. With the proper ability to personalize messaging across a scalable multi-channel model, this can be an unbeatable combination for member engagement and delight.

See our directory of companies with credit union marketing expertise.

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